Costa Rica birding

Slaty Flowerpiercer. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Costa Rica birds amaze Wyoming birders

By Barb Gorges

            “Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-throated Toucan, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-collared Manakin”—these were some of the names that rolled off our tongues as my husband, Mark, and I spotted birds in Costa Rica on a trip in early November.

            I saw two species endemic to Costa Rica found nowhere else (remember, it’s only 20 percent the size of Wyoming): Coppery-headed Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, on the edge of a new clearing for an apartment building.

            We saw 32 regional endemics, often meaning the species is found only in Costa Rica and neighboring Panama. My favorite, the Slaty Flowerpiercer, cleverly pierces the base of large flowers to extract nectar. Later, hummingbirds come by and get nectar too.

Snowcap, a type of hummingbird, is a regional endemic, ranging from southern Honduras to western Panama, including Costa Rica. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            We drove up Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), to 11,400 feet where all the communications towers are, to find the Volcano Junco. It’s another regional endemic, cousin of the juncos under our feeders in winter. It obligingly hopped around in front of us.

            Of the 234 species I saw in seven straight days of birding, 187 were life birds. The others, mostly migrants, I’d seen in North America previously.

            The top six bird groups I saw were hummingbirds (27 species), flycatchers (23), warblers (17), tanagers (12), woodpeckers (10) and wrens (9). Mario Cordoba H., our guide, explained Costa Rica has a lot of bird diversity (922 species), but not a lot of any one species—no big flocks.

Silvery-throated Tanager. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Mario, a native of Costa Rica, has been in the guiding business more than 20 years. Bird Watcher’s Digest contracted with his company, Crescentia Expeditions, to plan and guide the trip. Mario included a variety of habitats and alternated hikes in the forest to see elusive birds like Streak-headed Woodcreepers with stops for nectar feeder stations where bright-colored birds like the Fiery-throated Hummingbird were the target of everyone’s cameras.

Mario Cordoba, Crescentia Expeditions owner/guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Feeding stations filled with fruit at one ecolodge attracted the turkey-sized, prehistoric-looking Great Curassow. A frequent feeder visitor everywhere was the Blue-gray Tanager. It reminded me of our Mountain Bluebird. I even saw it buzzing around our bus, checking out the sideview mirrors and roof, the way the bluebirds do in spring.

Yellow-throated Toucan. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            There are many aspects to travelling in Central America beyond birding. For instance, lodging. Our first and last nights we stayed at two different boutique hotels. Hotel Bougainvillea is the one with 10 acres of bird-filled gardens.

            The three ecolodges in between were in rural areas and a little more rustic: Arenal Observatory Lodge, Selva Verde and Paraiso Quetzal. Mario picked these for their proximity to bird diversity. There are more independently owned lodges scattered across the country.

            For lunch and dinner, we often had “Typical Plate” – rice, beans, vegetables and meat (chicken, beef, pork). Up in the mountains, trout was an option because people farm trout there.

            Some of our travelling companions tired of beans and rice, and tired of the rain—we were maybe a little early anticipating the dry season—but otherwise, we were a congenial group of 12, plus Mario, Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest’s managing editor, and Ricardo, our fearless bus driver. He was also great at spotting birds and taking photos through the spotting scope with our smart phones without an adaptor. I’m going to have to learn that art. There were no bird snobs. Everyone wanted to help everyone see birds.

            Costa Rica has been a leader in eco-tourism. Its map shows a large percentage of land in national parks and preserves.

            Mountain farmers have been encouraged to hang on to their wild avocado trees, providing the favorite food and habitat of the resplendent quetzal. It is the green bird with the nearly 3-foot-long tail feathers revered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In return, the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation’s quetzal project brings birdwatchers out to see them, paying the farmer $5 a head—not a small sum in the local economy.

            We saw dangerous animals. In the dim light along the trail at La Selva Biological Station there was a bright yellow Eyelash Pit Viper arranged on the side of a log. The Mantled Howler Monkeys overhead were watching visitors as much as being watched. Mosquitoes, however, were nearly non-existent. Mark and I wore our permethrin-treated field clothes anyway.

            I think how neat it would be if Wyoming too, had a cadre of trained naturalist guides and ecolodges in the vicinity of more of our interesting wildlife—not just the elk and wolves.

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Texas ecotourism

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Bill Thompson and BWD RR participants-BarbGorges

Bill Thompson III, editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, talks about the birds of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the first day of the Reader Rendezvous in Texas held in March 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle April 3, 2016, “Ecotourists enjoy Texas border birds.”

By Barb Gorges

At the beginning of March, Mark and I indulged in five days of ecotourism in South Texas after visiting our son and his wife in Houston.

We met up with avid birders for another Reader Rendezvous put on by the Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine staff. Last year we met them in Florida.

I’d heard about the fall Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, but had no idea how well bird-organized the entire lower Rio Grande Valley is until a woman from the Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke to us.

2016-3-11a McAllen Green Parakeets byBarbGorges

A stretch of North 10th Street in McAllen, Texas, is an eBird hotspot for hundreds of Green Parakeets coming to roost in the evenings. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I was expecting McAllen, Texas—where we stayed, to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but its population is 140,000 in a metropolitan area of 800,000, with a lot of high-end retail businesses attracting shoppers from Mexico.

Outside of the urban and suburban areas, nearly every acre is farmed. But in the 1940s, two national wildlife refuges were set aside and another in 1979, as well as a number of state parks. This southern-most point of Texas is an intersection of four habitat types and their birds: desert, tropical, coastal and prairie, and it is a funnel for two major migratory flyways.

One of our local birding guides, Roy Rodriguez, has compiled a list of 528 bird species (we have only 326 for Cheyenne), including 150 accidentals seen rarely—though our group saw two, northern jacana and blue bunting.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Green Jay byBarbGorges

The Green Jay visited feeding stations at several of the national wildlife refuges and state parks visited. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of Roy’s common species that we saw are South Texas specialties like plain chachalaca, green parakeet and green jay. We also saw uncommon Texas specialties including white-tailed hawk, ringed kingfisher and Altamira and Audubon’s orioles.

From the rare list, some of the species we saw were ferruginous pygmy-owl, aplomado falcon and red-crowned parrot. Interestingly, several Texas rarities we saw are not rare in Wyoming: cinnamon teal, merlin and cedar waxwing.

Most of the Texas specialties have extensive ranges in Mexico. Thus, a species can be rare in a particular location, or just plain rare like the whooping cranes Mark and I saw further east on the Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

What is rare is the cooperative effort shown by nine entities to establish the World Birding Centers, www.theworldbirdingcenter.com, including four city parks, three state parks, a state wildlife management area and a national wildlife refuge. Another partnership has produced a map of the five-county area which locates and describes those and 76 additional public birding sites. The map is helpful even if you are proficient using www.eBird.org to check for the latest sightings.

Wyoming will be coming out with something similar soon, the Great Wyoming Birding Trail map app.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Plain Chachalaca byBarbGorges

The Plain Chachalaca also enjoys citrus fruit put out at feeding stations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The concentration of birds in south Texas draws people from around the world. We saw the natural open spaces drawing local families too. But it’s the visitors who spend money which the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau counts. They estimate bird-related business is the third biggest part of their economy, after shopping and “winter Texans.”

Roy said birdwatchers contributed $1 million to the economy when a rare black-headed nightingale-thrush spent five months in Pharr, Texas, and $700,000 in just a few weeks while a bare-throated tiger-heron could be seen.

The International Ecotourism Society says ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

We mostly think in terms of ecotourists going to third world countries, but it applies here in the U.S. as well.

“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel,” continues the description. At each of the seven locations the Reader Rendezvous visited, staff or volunteers gave us historical and conservation background. And each location is managed by conservation principles. I’m not sure about the sustainable travel aspect, though we did travel by van and bus, minimizing fuel and maximizing fun.

2016-3-13 Estero Llano Grande SP--byBarbGorges

Bill Thompson III (vest and blue shirt) helps Reader Rendezvous participants home in on a rare bird at Estero Llano Grande State Park in South Texas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Short of staying home, travel will not be sustainable until modes of transportation have clean fuel and restaurants and hotels are more conservation-minded. But experiencing and building understanding of other places and cultures is worthwhile. At Anzalduas County Park we stood on the edge of the Rio Grande, looking across at a Mexican park, close enough to wave. If a bird flew more than half way across the river, would we have to document it for eBird as being in Mexico? Is there any place to tally the number of Border Patrol trucks, blimps and helicopters we saw at that park?

Besides a few extra pounds from enjoying the always enormous and delicious portions of Texan and Mexican food, I brought home other souvenirs as well: a list of 154 species, 37 of them life birds for me (at least on eBird), photos, great memories and new birding friendships.

Now we’re back in time to welcome the avian “winter Texans” to Cheyenne as they migrate north.